By Rachel Paulose
AAP Guest Columnist
“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a light movie that on the surface, appears a frothy way to spend a Saturday afternoon. A troubling thematic undercurrent swooshes beneath the surface, but the waves it creates do not irretrievably mar this dramatic comedy.
“Marigold Hotel” is the story of seven British retirees who decide to outsource their retirement to India, the world’s outsourcing headquarters. Based on the novel “These Foolish Things,” by Deborah Moggach, the film takes its title from the once majestic, now humbled hotel to which the aging Britons journey for a cost-efficient retirement. Fittingly, the hotel’s full name is “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, for the Elderly and Beautiful.”
The always stellar Dame Judi Dench plays Evelyn, a widow whose husband’s death leaves her in financial and emotional straits. Tom Wilkinson appears as Graham, a retired judge whose motive for retiring in India unfolds as a gently told love story. Muriel (Maggie Smith, most recently of Downton Abbey fame) is in desperate need of major surgery, but she has neither the resources nor the time to be treated by the British health care system. Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) are a similarly financially compromised, unhappily married couple on the threshold of their fortieth anniversary. The British entourage is rounded out by Norma (Celia Imrie) and Norm (Ronald Pickup), who are really just looking for love. In India, the retirees meet Sonny (Dev Patel), the youthfully exuberant manager of the hotel. Because “there’s always room” for more in India, they also naturally meet Sonny’s extended family, semi-secret girlfriend, his girlfriend’s brother and co-workers, as well as a number of family servants.
“Marigold Hotel” opens with a brief window into each of the British character’s lives and respective challenges as “Strangers in the Night” plays in the background. Each character is beguiled by the possibility of a fresh start in India, and in a happy coincidence, they all journey concurrently to India. Together, they deal with culture shock as they navigate the complete loss of their former lives in accommodations that are not nearly as illustrious as they had been billed. Simultaneously, Sonny labors to restore to the Marigold Hotel some measure of its former glory, incurs the wrath of both families by courting a woman beneath his social rank, and struggles with his extended family to chart his own future. An optimistic bundle of kinetic energy, Sonny paraphrases the most memorable line of the Bollywood blockbuster “Om Shanti Om,” by reassuring the doubters: “Everything will be all right in the end. If it is not all right, then it is not the end.”
“Marigold Hotel” makes no pretense of aiming for Oscar glory. The dialogue is ridden with clichés and the plot is entirely predictable. However, the thriving soundtrack and lush cinematography colorfully portray part of vibrant India. The outstanding cast, including Dench and Wilkinson, lift this movie above the mediocre as their characters search for continued meaning and pleasure in their new lives.
Given the array of outstanding actors who brought their considerable talents to this movie, it is unfortunate that among its tired clichés, “Marigold Hotel” presents without challenge a distorted narrative of modern India and its people. According to “Marigold Hotel,” India, and native Indians, evidently are still in need of British rule to set their world straight.
The former housekeeper Muriel, who literally rather would die than be treated by a doctor of color (she complains to a nurse that “no amount of washing” is going to remove the color of an African doctor’s skin as she refuses his treatment), determines she is more capable than Sonny of running the Marigold Hotel after summarily shedding her xenophobia. Sonny apparently accedes without a second thought.
Graham, who does seem to truly appreciate the richness of Indian culture, arrives in India to resuscitate a relationship with a friend who became a lover, at least for one night. Abandoned, Graham’s Indian lover married and raised a family in the intervening decades. His former lover’s spouse registers not a word of protest at Graham’s unexpected reappearance.
Evelyn encourages Sonny to challenge his mother over her refusal to accept his girlfriend, still a novel concept in a culture where many families continue to arrange marriages. Confronted, Sonny’s duly chastened mother wilts without a fight.
Indeed, even the dilapidated Marigold Hotel is weary and empty of guests until the British expatriates arrive to fix it up and fill it up. The Marigold Hotel is in fact an anomaly in a nation that has in fact seen a thriving industry emerge to serve affluent retirees who find themselves doted upon by resourceful servants in luxurious surroundings featuring the modern amenities the Marigold Hotel so clearly lacks. There is great irony, then, in the film’s use of the Marigold Hotel as a symbol for its host nation.
In sum, the Indians are incapable, unfulfilled, infantile, and unsuccessful until the retirees remake them in their own image. “Marigold Hotel” portrays the British arriving in a softer form of conquest and emerging triumphant in a new kind of imperialism–a purported superiority of thought rather than military might.
Do Western film producers really believe that the people who, for the first time in the history of mankind expelled the mightiest empire of its day not by arms but by the power of ideas, need direction from the West? What’s that you say? Ah yes, true enough, “Marigold Hotel” is just a movie. But movies purport to shed light on the human experience, and “Marigold Hotel” does not portray India and its natives as they are or even the way in which the vast majority of objective Westerners perceive the subcontinent and its people.
“Marigold Hotel” is not unique in the false reality it projects. From “Mississippi Burning” to “Avatar,” Western cinema has too often portrayed the “other” as a supporting actor in his own drama. Time has not yet righted this caricature. Someday, perhaps, Hollywood will evolve to a state of higher state of enlightenment as to the truth of the world it seeks to portray. After all, if it is not all right, it is not the end.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is playing in select theaters nationwide. Approximately two hours long, it is rated PG-13.